Thursday, February 12, 2009

Aunthood and Apple Pie

One of the things we love as writers is the ability of language to hint at the unsayable, to imply, to allude, and sometimes to misdirect. And writers all know that glorious moment of serendipity when what we've put on the page is subtler, deeper and richer than we realised when we wrote it. Or as Jack Vance puts it:

Supple sentences, with first and second meanings and overtones beyond, outrageous challenges with cleverly planned slip-points, rebuttals of elegant brevity; deceptions and guiles, patient explanations of the obvious, fleeting allusions to the unthinkable.

Sometimes, though, we want our language to be clean, clear, unambiguous. Imagine, if you will, that you are compiling the instructions to go on the back of an apple pie packet. You would not want to be imprecise here, would you? Imagine you were drafting the text to go on the back of the Aunt Bessie's Apple Pie which made its way into our house yesterday. How might you start?

45-50 minutes, 180C/350F/GAS 4
To oven cook: Pre-heat oven and remove outer packaging, glaze with a little egg and/or milk and sprinkle with sugar.
Not a bad start, eh? Time, temperature: the sine qua non of cooking. The stuff about the eggs and/or milk, well, no-one does that, do they? Aunt Bessie and I both know that: it's just there to make me feel better about being too lazy "and/or" inept to bake my own bloody pie. There's a hint of pedantry which will come back to haunt us, though: remove outer packaging. That means "take it out of the box". I had thought of that one, strangely. Perhaps Aunt Bessie's lawyers were wary of potential litigation. ("Coffee: contents may be hot." "Sleeping tablets: may cause drowsiness.").

OK, so the outer packaging is removed, the oven's tooling along at the correct temperature.

Place product on a baking tray and bake in the centre of the oven for 45-50 minutes until pastry is golden brown.

Not so good here, Bess. Product? You mean the pie, right? Then she tells me how long to cook it for--for the second time, but adds a potentially conflicting instruction. What if the pastry is golden brown after 35 minutes? Or 50 minutes have come and gone and it still looks like a Pre-Raphaelite heroine? Do I remove the product or not?

Half way through baking, turn the foil (round not upside down) to ensure even browning. Ensure the product is piping hot before serving.

She's still sticking to the fiction about baking: not rubbing my nose in the fact that I've just rammed a frozen pie in the oven. Then we come onto the foil (which should perhaps be described as the product's inner packaging, the part I didn't remove before baking). Here's the kicker: turn it round not upside down. Come on, Bess! Do you think I'm going to invert the pie in the oven if you just write turn the foil to ensure even browning ? Haven't we come further that that together? We're baking, for Heaven's sake! I should have known when you told me to remove outer packaging that you didn't really trust me to bake, that I was just some miserable kitchen-boy.

Ensure the product is piping hot before serving. It's getting tricky now: we've been in oven 50 minutes, the product is golden brown and still there are conditions. I didn't turn the pie upside down at the halfway mark, surely it's ready now.

If it's not, I'm gonna sue you. And I don't think we're going to be baking together any more.


Swainson said...

Occasionally I find the moron instructions useful.

Particularly after cooking a pizza until piping hot and with cheese nicely melted, as was the white polystyrene thing it came packaged on.

You know you are poor when you scrape the melted polystyrene off and eat it anyway.

Who said university teaches nothing nowadays? I ALWAYS check I've taken the food I'm going to cook/nuke out of it's packaging and to eat ANYTHING you've cooked.

David Isaak said...

We have a product in our pantry whose packaging shouts "Ready in 20 minutes!"

Nonsense. We've had it there for over a year, and it still isn't ready.

Tim Stretton said...

Sometimes I find the melted polystyrene difficult to tell apart from the cheese anyway. I may have eaten both and not noticed.

Ready in 20 minutes? Is it quicker if you turn it upside down? Web Admin said...

It's the little details I like on packaging... such as those on a pecan and toffee danish pastry: "may contain nuts".

"May"? If it doesn't, I want my money back. It begs the question: when is a pecan nut not a pecan nut?

Tim Stretton said...

"when is a pecan nut not a pecan nut?"

When it's a tongue-twister...